Ellen McCormack

The mother of four, New York resident Ellen McCormack became involved in politics because of her passion against abortion.  Her campaign centered on that issue in both her 1976 and 1980 presidential bids. 

McCormack, who was born in 1926, termed herself a housewife and grandmother during her campaigns.  Building on the earlier candidacies of Congresswomen Margaret Chase Smith, Patsy Mink, and Shirley Chisholm, McCormack ran for the presidency, although she had no governmental experience and developed no platform beyond issues related to “life.”  Unlike many other opponents of reproductive freedom, however, she was consistent in this position: she also opposed the death penalty and the ongoing Vietnam War.

She made the decision to run just three years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, declaring herself a candidate in the 1976 Democratic primaries for “the defense of unborn babies.”  Overturning the court’s ruling with a constitutional amendment to ban abortion was her main focus.

Because of recent changes in federal election law, McCormack became the first female presidential candidate to qualify for federal campaign funding.  The matching funds boosted her candidacy, allowing her to run television advertising and to become fairly visible nationally.  She also was the first female candidate to receive Secret Service protection. 

McCormack appeared on the ballot in at least eighteen states, more than any other woman to that point.  She did not win any primaries, but her vote total of 238,027 was higher than that for some well-known Democratic men.  She had 22 delegates at the Democratic National Convention that nominated Jimmy Carter.

She then led the formation of the Right to Life Party, sometimes called “Respect for Life.”  The party’s purpose was to work for a constitutional amendment that would reverse Roe v. Wade and support legislation restricting and regulating abortion around the country.  McCormack was its chairwoman and was its nominee for lieutenant governor of New York in 1978. 

Running as the nominee of a minor party instead of as a Democrat may have been a mistake, as McCormack was successful in getting on 1980 primary ballots in just three states -- New York, New Jersey and Kentucky.  She and her running mate, Carroll Driscoll, received 32,327 votes.  Conservatives swept that fall’s elections and many other candidates emulated her pro-life position, but as Ellen McCormack’s influence declined even as the movement grew.

Although increasingly limited to her home state of New York, she continued to speak out against abortion and especially criticized her fellow Catholic Democrat, Governor Mario Cuomo.  Ellen McCormack’s public fight against abortion earned her two honorary degrees, from Niagara University and Molloy College. 

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Works Cited:

  • Reprinted from NWHM Cyber Exhibit "Women Who Ran for President"